In the past, the fifth Sunday of Lent (the Sunday before Palm Sunday) was known as Passion Sunday. However, following Vatican II, the sixth Sunday of Lent was officially re-named Passion Sunday. This Sunday is also called Palm Sunday, since palm branches are still distributed. However, the focus this Sunday is on the betrayal, arrest, suffering and crucifixion of Jesus rather than on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem just before his death. Passion/Palm Sunday is the start of Holy Week, in which the Church commemorates the Last Supper and the first Eucharist on Holy Thursday, and Christ's death on Good Friday. What Jesus experiences is a manifestation of God's overwhelming love for each one of us. Further, by identifying with the 'mystery' of Jesus' suffering, death, and resurrection, we experience a great liberation, a ‘Passover,' from various forms of sin and enslavement to a life of joy and freedom.
Today's liturgy combines both a sense of “triumph” and “tragedy”. At the beginning, we commemorate the triumph of Christ our King. This is done through the blessing of palms, the procession, and the singing. In the liturgy of the word, we hear the story of the sufferings and indignities to which Jesus was subjected. However, we keep in mind that, even in this “tragedy,” there is “triumph”. Even in his Passion, the Palms continue to be present. This is because Christ came for precisely this purpose, to save in, and through, his death.
The first reading for the liturgy of the Eucharist is from the prophet Isaiah. The part of Isaiah written in exile (Chapters 40-55) contains four servant songs, sections that interrupt the flow of the book but that have a definite unity between them. The first (42:1-7), which begins “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen ...” introduces the suffering servant of Yahweh. In the second (49:1-7), the servant, abused and humiliated, is commissioned anew. In the third (our first reading), the servant is disciplined and strengthened by suffering. In the fourth song, to be read on Good Friday (52:17-53:12), even the Gentiles are in awesome contemplation before the suffering and rejected servant. In late Judaism, the suffering servant of Yahweh was seen as the perfect Israelite, one of supreme holiness, a messiah. In the gospels, Jesus identifies himself with, and is identified as the servant, the one who frees all people. He will accept, like the servant of Isaiah, without rebellion and in total obedience, God’s will for him. Even in his suffering and ignominy, he is confident that God will vindicate him.
This vindication and exaltation forms the last part of the kenosis hymn of Paul. The hymn succinctly summarizes the whole of salvation history. It begins with the pre-existence of Christ, moves on to his incarnation and mission and then, narrates his passion and death on the cross. It is only then that the hymn speaks of his resurrection and exaltation. However, there is no room for any kind of triumphalism here! There is no room for a feel-good religion that does not take its servant role seriously. There is no room for a victory that does not first know the "fellowship of His sufferings" on behalf of others. There is no room for piety that does not pour out, yes, even totally empties itself for the interests of others.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who poured out his own life at the hands of the Nazis because he refused to allow the church to be the tool of oppression, wrote: “The church is the church only when it exists for others. . . . The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. . . . It must not underestimate the importance of human example which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus.”
We who profess holiness need the unity of mind and purpose to which Paul is calling the Philippians. We need to see ourselves in terms of our obligations to the community of those "in Christ" of which we claim to be a part. Maybe we need to see ourselves less in terms of "those who never sin" and more in terms of "those who serve”. Maybe we need to see ourselves in terms of the Servant-Christ, the "man for others," who bends himself to struggle for the wholeness and healing of a wounded world. Maybe we need to reexamine our own values that have been so subtly shaped by the success-oriented society around us. We need to see if we are acting in a manner worthy of the heavenly citizenship we claim. For Paul, to claim that citizenship meant to have a mind-set different from others. It meant a commitment to being a servant. It meant living a life poured out in service to others, a life totally emptied of self.
The passion story, as told by Mark, arrests us because in it we find God coming to us in utter vulnerability. The Father seems absent and silent. He does not act in might, power and vengeance to stop sinful people from doing their worst to Jesus, his Son. It looks as if the Father has abandoned his beloved Son. Why doesn't he do something? Where is God when a righteous Son is gasping for air on a Roman cross? Why is he silent? Why does he not send ten thousand angels and save his Son? God remains silent until the fury of human defiance and sin carries out, to the fullest extent, its gruesome imaginations. When the life of the Son of God is snuffed out, it is then that God speaks. He speaks loud and clear. He speaks, not in vengeance, counter-attack, or destruction. God does not kill Pilate, the Roman soldiers, the high priests, or the passers-by. Instead, he splits a curtain and makes himself open and available by abandoning the temple and teaching, through this sign, that true worship is now no longer in the Temple or sanctuary, but on the cross. It is at that point that the Roman soldiers realize how pitiful and puny they are and all their bravado melts away. It is at that point that the Centurion proclaims, "Truly this man was God’s Son!" God acts in strange ways.
Jesus "emptied himself" totally and in so doing, became filled with the Spirit of his Father. He clung to nothing; he let go of everything. Do we have the courage to do likewise?